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On a recent customer call being led by a vendor account manager and engineer I witnessed some key mistakes by the engineer as he presented the technology to the customer.  None of the mistakes were glaring or show stopping but they definitely kept the conversation from having the value that was potentially there.  That conversation got me thinking about the skills and principles that need to be applied to pre-sales engineering and prompted this blog.

Pre-sales engineering in all of its many forms is truly an art.  There is definitely science and methodologies behind its success but practicing those methods and studying that science alone won’t get you far past good.  To be great you need to invest effort into the technology, the business, and most importantly you’re personal style.  If you’re already good at pre-sales and don’t care to be great than the rest of this blog won’t help you.  If you’re an ‘end-user’ or customer that deals with pre-sales engineers this blog may help you understand a little of what goes through the heads of the guys on the other side of the conference table.  If your job is post-sales, implementations, managed-services, etc this may give you an idea of what your counterparts are doing.  If you’re a pre-sales engineer who could use some new ideas or tools, this blogs for you.

Joe’s 5 rules of Pre-Sales Engineering:

  • You are a member of the sales team
  • You are not a salesperson
  • You must be Business Relevant
  • You must be Technically Knowledgeable
  • Know your audience

These are really rules of thumb that I use to get into the right mindset when engaging with customer’s in a pre-sales fashion.  They aren’t set in stone, all encompassing or agreed upon by teams of experts, just tools I use.  Let’s start with a quick look into each rule:

You are a member of the sales team:

This one is key to remember because for a lot of very technical people that move into pre-sales roles this is tough to grasp.  There is not always love, drum circles, group hugs and special brownies between sales and engineering and some engineers tend to resent sales people for various reasons (and vice versa.)  Whether or not there is resentment it’s natural to be proud of your technical skill set and thinking of yourself in a sales perspective may not be something your comfortable with.  Get over it or get out of pre-sales.  As a pre-sales engineer it’s your job to act as a member of the sales team assisting account managers in the sale of the products and services your company provides.  You are there to drive the sales that provide the blanket of revenue the rest of the company rises and sleeps under (if you missed that reference watch the video, it’s worth it:

You are not a salesman:

Now that you’ve swallowed the fact that you’re a member of the sales team it’s time to enforce the fact that you are not an account manager/sales representative etc.  This is vitally important, in fact if you can apply only the first two rules you’ll be significantly better than some of your peers.  I’m going to use the term AM (Account Manager) for sales from here on out, allow this to encompass any non-technical sales title that fits your role.  An AM and a pre-sales SE are completely different roles with a common goal.  An AM is tightly tied to a target sales number and most likely spends hours on con calls talking about that number and why they are or aren’t at that number.  An AMs core job is to maintain customer relationships and sell what the company sells.

A pre-sales engineers job on the other hand is a totally different beast.  While you do need to support your AM it’s your job to make sure that the product, service or solution you sell is relevant, effective, right-fit, and complete for the particular customer.  In the reseller world we talk about becoming a ‘Trusted Advisor’ but that ‘Trusted Advisor’ is typically a two person team consisting of an AM and Engineer who know the customer well, understand their environment, and maintain a mutually beneficial relationship.

As the engineer side of that perfect team it’s your job to have the IDEA:

  • Identify
  • Design
  • Evangelize
  • Adjust

Note: Before continuing I have to apologize for the fact that I just created one of those word acronym BS objects…

So what’s the bright IDEA?  A pre-sales engineer you need to identify customer requirements, design a product set or solution to meet those requirements, evangelize the proposed solution, and adjust the solution as necessary with the customer. 

You must be business relevant

This is typically another tough thing to do from an engineer standpoint.  Understanding business requirements and applying the technology to those requirements does not come naturally for most engineers but it is vital to success.  Great technology alone has no value, the data center landscape is littered with stories of great technology companies that failed because they couldn’t capitalize by making the technology business relevant.  The same lesson applies to pre-sales engineering.

To be a great pre-sales engineer you have to understand both business and technology enough to map the technical benefits to actual business requirements.  So what if your widget is faster than all other widgets before it, what does that mean to my business, and my job?  A great way to begin to understand the high level business requirements and what the executives of the companies you sell into are thinking is to incorporate business books and magazines into your reading.  Next time you’re at the airport magazine rack looking at the latest trade rag grab a copy of ‘The Harvard business Review’ instead.

You must be technically knowledgeable:

This part should go without saying but unfortunately is not always adhered to.  It’s way to often I see engineers reading from the slides they present because they don’t know the products or material they are presenting.  Maintaining an appropriate level of technical knowledge becomes harder and harder as more products are thrown at you, but you must do it anyway.   If you can’t speak to the product or solutions features and benefits without slides or data sheets you shouldn’t be speaking about it.

Staying up-to-date is a daunting task but there are a plethora of resources out there for it.  Blogs and twitter can be used as a constant stream of the latest and greatest technical information.  Add to that formal training and vendor documentation and the tools to be technically relevant are there.  The best advice I can offer on staying technically knowledgeable is not being afraid to ask and or say you don’t know.  If you need training ask for it, if you need info find someone who knows it and talk to them.  As importantly work to share your expertise with others as it creates a collaborative environment that benefits everyone.

Know your audience:

This may be the most important of the five rules and boils down to doing your homework and being applicable.  Ensure you’ve researched your customer, their requirements, and their environment as much as possible.  Know what their interests and pain points are before walking into a meeting whenever possible.

Knowing your audience also applies during customer meetings.  As the customer provides more information it’s important to tailor the information you provide to that customers interest on the fly.  Any technical conversation should be a fluid entity ebbing and flowing with the customers feedback.

Practicing the art:

Like any other art pre-sales must be practiced.  You must study the products and services your company sells, develop your presentation skills, and constantly work on your communication.  From my perspective the best way to build all of these skills at once is white boarding.  White boards are the greatest tool in a pre-sales engineers arsenal.  They provide a clean canvas on which you can paint the picture of a solution and remain fluid in any given conversation.  Unlike slides white board sessions are flexible and can easily stay focused on what the customer wants to hear.  I firmly believe that a pre-sales engineer should not discuss any technology they cannot confidently articulate via the whiteboard.  You cannot take this concept far enough, I’ve instructed 5 day data center classes 100% on the white board covering LAN, SAN, storage, servers and networking because it was the right fit for the audience.  The white board is your friend.

If you don’t have a white board in your home get one.  Use it to hone your skills, help visualize architecture, and practice before meetings.  Look through the slides you typically present and practice conveying the same messaging via the white board without cues.  As you become comfortable having technical discussions via the white board you’ll find you can convey a greater level of technical information tailored to the customers needs in a much faster fashion.  White boards also don’t require slides, projectors, or power, they don’t suffer from technical difficulties.

As you white board in front of customers think of painting a picture for them, start with broad strokes outlining the technology and add detail to areas that the customer shows interest in.  Drill down into only the specifics that are relevant to that customer, this is where knowing your audience is key.


In the diagram above you can see the way the conversation should go with a customer.  You begin at the top level big picture and drill down into only the points that the customer shows an interest in or are applicable to their data center and job role.  Don’t ever feel the need to discuss every feature of a product or solution because they are not all relevant to every customer.  For instance a server admin probably doesn’t care how fast switching occurs but network and application teams probably do.  Maybe your product can help save a ton of cost, great but that’s probably not very relevant to the administrators who aren’t responsible for budget.  Always ensure you’re maintaining relevance to the audience and the business.


Pre-Sales like any other skill set must be honed and practiced.  It doesn’t come overnight and as with anything else, you’re never as good as you can be.  Build a style and methodology that work for you and don’t be afraid to change or modify them as you find areas for improvement.  The better you get at the more value your giving your customer, team, and company.

Post Author: Joe Onisick (@JoeOnisick)

43 Replies to “The Art of Pre-Sales”

  1. Hi Joe,
    Great blog. This is a must read for anyone involved in the sales process. I agree 100% that there is a disconnect between AM and SEs. You do a great job of pointing out the rules and how they are relevant to a successful sale and business.
    Another good tool is The New Conceptual Selling book by Stephen Heiman and Diane Sanchez.


  2. Joe – Great Article.

    I have no specific objections to anything you’ve mentioned here, but I’d like to add my thoughts to your point regarding “You must be technically knowledgeable” and perhaps “Practicing the Art”:

    – In general, Engineers that are 100% pre-sales (i.e. engineers that don’t do any post-sales work) are generally less effective than engineers that do BOTH pre-sales and post-sales. I’m guessing 30% post-sales is a minimum. Many engineers that move into pre-sales have simply checked-out of doing the challenging work. They either don’t want to work off-hours, or find it much easier to generate presos, take customers to lunch, and do proposals. Even then, they are going to call on the post-sales staff to fill in the real details.

    – In reality, if we’re talking about a vendor partner, such as a Cisco partner, everyone is on the Sales team whether they like it or not (regardless of how they are compensated). Yeah, there can be a separate Engineering team to shield post-sales engineers from unrealistic deadlines or problem customers, but in general, when there’s a conflict, the Sales team wins. They guy in charge of a regional office is usually in Sales.

    – My experience is that many vendor partners usually spend in an inordinate amount of their available resources on pre-sales, where post-sales is a afterthought, especially when there is substantial margin to be made on the sale of a product. This is a contributing factor to why I’m not having any trouble finding work as an independent consultant. Folks that can actually make things work (which still understanding the business/technical goals) are still hard to find.

    In summary – I really think a key to staying effective in pre-sales is to stay involved in the actual architecture/design/implementation of the technology to some extent.

    Lastly – I think I’ll pick up a whiteboard this week – I needed something to put on my blank wall in the office. Great suggestion.

    1. David,

      I absolutely agree, even where it’s sad that you’re correct. There are pre-sales engineers who are truly passionate about it and fatastic at it. That being said they are far outweighed by the lackluster or checked out. There is also a common disconnect in the reseller field with a focus on sales and margin rather than customer needs. Again this is not always the case, but it is common.

      I appreciate your feedback and agree that keeping your hands dirty is a great way to stay on top of the technology. There are others, but that is one of the most effective.

      Thanks fo reading, and the comment!


  3. I don’t know. I think that all must be included in higher concept. What I say about? I think the base of all it is communications skills, You can’t do anything if you неприятны собеседнику. And I think that we have a great teacher who showed for us what it can be reached. I say about Dale Carnegie. It is a professional skill and if we will compare what is more important for customer: what do you know about his problem and his business and what is your technical experience and pleasure from a communication with you I think that the second will be more important. Summary. My opinion that engineer must had been taught for communication methods and they MUST do that with AM who is working with him. Other is not so important.

  4. Sorry there is some mistake in my post this is correct. -)
    I don’t know. I think that all must be included in higher concept. What I say about? I think the base of all it is communications skills, You can’t do anything if your interlocutor has displeasure from communication with you. And I think that we have a great teacher who showed for us what it can be reached. I say about Dale Carnegie. It is a professional skill and if we will compare what is more important for customer: what do you know about his problem and his business and what is your technical experience and pleasure from a communication with you I think that the second will be more important. Summary. My opinion that engineer must had been taught for communication methods and they MUST do that with AM who is working with him. Other is not so important.

  5. If i might add to the IDEA concept you have discussed, i think it is needed to add an educate component in the beginning, because more or less (especially in the region where i reside) the need to educate the customers about the capabilities of the technology out there and being offered is key. Most of the customers don’t know all their requirements. So educating them is key to ensure they understand the full spectrum of the solution and pinpoint the capabilities they would like out of it.

    1. Abdul,

      Thanks for reading and great comment! Educating your customers where necessary should definitely be a constant loop within the cycle. It’s key to take a consultative approach and ensure you’re helping you’re customer understand both how and why.


  6. Hi Joe,

    Really a good blog.

    I am a pure technical guy and was searching related to what is pre-sales, as I have long term plans for the same.

    This article really help me to understand the way pre-sales people should work, there scope & limits.

    Thank you.

  7. Hi Joe,

    It is a superb article that you have written, especially when I am re-considering a career in presales.

    Thanks a lot!


  8. Thanks for this great write-up. Being a presales guy from being a “real” engineer (implementation / integration) in the past, I can easily agree on what you are saying.

    Well said!

  9. Forgot to mention about white boarding part. That’s absolutely game changer thing I have ever experienced.

    You suggestion “If you don’t have a white board in your home get one” has given me a real tool for sharpening.

  10. Great Read ! It has really helped putting things in perspective; but would like to know how AMs can improve on their part. I think playing a devil’s advocate is required so that we can see how a harmonized team can be achieved.

    My core has been the ability to handle pre-sales well and this is because I had been part of Business development in my earlier years. Now when it comes to work with others in AM role, i can see a huge gap and uncharted areas where the Sales Team need to establish a Stronghold.

  11. Thank you very much for this blog. This is awesome, I am a Pre-sales Engineer and you touched exactly on what difficulties that we face when we move from Post-Sales to Pre-Sales.
    you article will help me a lot 🙂

  12. Thanks for sharing! Pre-sales is indeed an important craft to master. However, the technical wizardry of the pre-sale guru is often used to bypass the limitations of the actual product by providing an alternative interpretation of the product features, or even directly hacking the product by adding custom features.

    IMHO the better the product (UX) design, the less pre-sales effort is needed – and not only in the Cloud/SaaS world.

  13. Hi,

    Thanks a lot for this article; I really appreciated it.
    Just one question,
    – if you’d give percentage to the following two parts of being a pre-sale profile; engineering (technical) and professional services competencies, how much one should know about each of these fields?

    Best wishes,

  14. Proposal assistance – Given presales were involved in the sale since the discovery of the prospect business problems, presales will often complete the business analysis and technical component of a sales proposal.

  15. Good article. It is amazing the amount of money, time and turn-over in developing good PreSales SEs. At a project I worked on, we spent so much time and political battles just on defining terms: Sales System Engineers versus PreSales Engineer, etc., and whether partners should also be enabled as “company SEs.”

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